Today, an Indian bestows a transforming gift upon a
young boy. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
George Catlin was born in
1796 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania -- on the edge
of the American wilderness. When he was only nine,
he went hunting. He spotted a deer and took aim.
Suddenly another rifle cracked, and the deer fell
dead. Out of the brush came a huge Indian. George
hid while the hunter skinned the deer.
He told his father, who went out to welcome the
Indian. You see, George's mother had been captured
by Iroquois fighting alongside the English during
the Revolution. They'd treated her well. Catlin's
parents figured we owed the Indians respect.
The hunter befriended George. He gave him his
tomahawk. Then two things happened: One day George
practiced throwing the tomahawk at a tree. It
bounced off and gashed his cheek. Two days later,
other settlers senselessly bushwhacked the Indian
and killed him. Young Catlin was left scarred --
inside and out.
Catlin went on to study law and become an amateur
miniaturist painter. He did portraits of Dolley
Madison, DeWitt Clinton, and Sam Houston. Life was
going smoothly enough, but he craved a larger
calling. In 1823 he found one.
He met a party of Indians traveling to Washington
for negotiations. Catlin felt his old scars, and he
the history and customs of such a people,
preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes
worth the life-time of one man.
By 1830 he was ready to begin an
eight-year odyssey among Blackfoot, Poncas, Crow, and
Mandans. He lived and painted among them. Afterward
he wrote books about them. He built a unique record
of the people America was destroying -- the same way
they'd once destroyed his friend. The work changed
Gone were the affectations of the 18th-century
parlor. Now he insisted that "... artifice has no
place in art. Nature 'has a grace beyond the reach
of art.'" The Indians liked his work. They took him
into their secret rites. Some were pretty
terrifying -- men hung by hooks through their
chest, that sort of thing.
As Catlin grew old, his art and his writing lost
its incisiveness. As the Indians lost their land,
they lost their definition. In 1843 Catlin's great
contemporary, Audubon, saw Western Indians on a
trip up the Missouri River. But now they were poor
and disease-ridden. Audubon, whose expectations had
been built up by Catlin's work, was repelled by
what he finally saw.
Catlin had done his magic in the nick of time. He'd
received his gift, borne his scars, and used them
well. Toward the last, he deteriorated, right along
with the way of life that he kept on trying to
describe. But no matter. He left behind the best
account of that life we have. He, more than anyone,
told us who these people had once been -- while
they still were.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Millchap, J.R., George Catlin. Boise,
ID: Boise State University Western Writers Series,
No. 27, 1977. (The phrase in quotes above is from
page 10 of this source.)
Truettner, W.H., The Natural Man Observed: A
Study of Catlin's Indian Gallery.
Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Inst. Press, 1979.
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Library, for suggesting Catlin as a
subject and providing materials.
The following website provides three fine examples
of Catlin's work:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |